Mind your STEP

How do you combine dance, history, fundraising, fun and educational inspiration into one event?The Stompdown, featuring a high-energy competition between elite step teams from across the nation, accomplishes just that. Local dancer Djuan Ballinger has been immersed in stepping since he was a student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, ascending the ranks to step master at Florida A&M University. After he graduated, Ballinger continued organizing shows for the Divine Nine step teams, comprising fraternities and sororities that are part of the historically black National Pan-Hellenic Council.

While touring with the Drumline Live Broadway musical and working as an actor and choreographer, Ballinger realized stepping transcended college campuses. Last year, he evolved and expanded his show to include youth, middle school, high school and non-Divine Nine step teams. At the same time, The Stompdown broadened its mission to make a positive impact on youth, raise money for scholarships and book vouchers, and team up with nonprofits like Boys & Girls Club, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association and the March of Dimes. Now, Ballinger and his team—Bryan Elliott, Aaron Hayden, Shericka Cunningham, Ojay Timot and Connor Kuba—bring The Stompdown to Jacksonville for the very first time.

Folio Weekly: How did you first become interested in step?
Djuan Ballinger: I was introduced to dance as a little boy, but I learned step from a local high schooler one morning while waiting at the bus stop. I mimicked what he did, and he said, “You’re picking it up pretty quick.” I said, “I guess I am—can you teach me another?” I knew right then and there I had a love of stepping.

But your path to participation wasn’t easy?
The next day, I asked my teacher at Douglas Anderson if I could start a step team. Since DA was a performing arts magnet school, we didn’t have step teams, marching bands or football teams, though. So I went over to Stanton and asked if I could be a part of their step team. I had to get a letter of approval from my teachers at Douglas Anderson, but I made the team and ended up becoming step master.

What happened next?
I knew if I wanted to continue stepping, I had to be a part of a fraternity, so I started preparing myself to go to college. I ended up at Florida A&M University, and on the first day, I tried out for my dorm’s step team. A week later, the captain asked me if I’d be interested in becoming a step choreographer, and I said, “Absolutely!” After graduating in 2006, I said, “I want to keep this step thing up!” So I started producing step shows in Tallahassee with local non-Divine Nine teams.

How did that evolve into The Stompdown?
After touring with Drumline Live all over the country and overseas, I met more and more people who stepped. So last year, I got more teams involved. I wanted to incorporate everybody. The Stompdown provides a platform to compete for awards and prize money, but I also decided to use that platform to educate the youth in a fun way. Stepping motivated me to go to college—now I want to take that concept and motivate middle and high school students. The opportunities are out there, even if sometimes we’re not exposed to them. People will say, “College isn’t for me.” And I’m, like, “Why? Is that something you just heard?” I want to inspire people. With stepping, you’re blessed with a gift. It’s an art and a trade; if you cultivate that gift, you can make money. Maybe even become your own entrepreneur.

How widely has The Stompdown toured?
We’ve traveled throughout Georgia, Alabama and Florida, but it means a lot to bring the show to The Florida Theatre—the first step show ever at this historical landmark. My great-grandmother passed a couple of weeks ago at the age of 107, and some of her last words to me were, “Keep going, no matter what. Take The Stompdown as far as you can.” That was truly a blessing.

Stepping runs deep for you, on a personal and professional level …
Stepping is a full-contact sport—rhythmic movement between hands and feet. As a team member, you become a part of this unit, practicing until 3, 4 or 5 in the morning to perfect your steps. Even outside the fraternities and sororities, stepping is a brotherhood and sisterhood. And when it comes to the performance, the energy is dynamic. Your adrenaline rushes—it’s a high, really.

I’m guessing that’s why the popularity of stepping persists, hundreds of years after its creation.
It comes from this historical background in Africa. Gumboot dance [came from South African miners] who couldn’t really [freely] speak their minds, so they communicated through stepping. Then it got adopted by fraternities and sororities, and now everyone steps: white, Filipino, Mexican, Asian. It incorporates so many styles of rhythms and beats, from salsa, hip hop, jazz and more. People can use step to express themselves, to cope with stress or to celebrate.

It’s such a vibrant art form—when you see stepping done in person, it’s impossible not to feel celebratory.

It really can be a movement for positivity. There are enough bad things going on in the world—The Stompdown is one positive thing that can inspire the kids. The way I see it, service is the price you pay for the space you occupy. With step, I want to get inside the heads of our youth so we can transform them to aim for success.